The Polysynthesis Parameter

The Polysynthesis Parameter

The Polysynthesis Parameter

The Polysynthesis Parameter

Synopsis

Baker argues that polysynthetic languages - in which verbs are built up of many parts and where one verb can act as a whole sentence - are more than an accidental collection of morphological processes; rather they adopt a systematic way of representing predicate-argument relationships, parallel to but distinct from the system used for English.

Excerpt

Among the most fascinating questions about language to both specialists and nonspecialists is: How different are languages and what do those differences mean? This book represents an effort to come to grips with the first part of this question by looking in detail at a type of language that has had relatively little impact on the formulation and development of contemporary linguistic theory. These are the polysynthetic languages, informally defined as those languages in which verbs are built up of many parts, such that a single verb often performs the same expressive function as a whole sentence in more familiar languages. It has been an open question whether the analytical techniques of syntax can be applied profitably to languages such as these. The thesis of this book is that, appearances notwithstanding, many of these techniques and concepts do shed considerable light on the structure of polysynthetic languages once they are applied in the proper way.

In order to establish this point, the exposition is presented on three levels: the descriptive, the theoretical, and the comparative. On the descriptive level, the book presents many detailed facts about the syntax and syntax-related morphology of the Mohawk language, a paradigm example of polysynthesis. These are the result of extensive new fieldwork by myself and my team, supplemented by some textual analysis. The description attempts to be wide-ranging. Thus, while the book is not organized as a grammar of Mohawk, it contains all the major (although not every detail) that I would have included in the syntax and morphology sections of a grammar if I had written one. It also maintains a balance between those topics that are typically noticed by people who write data-driven descriptions of polysynthetic languages and those that are typically of concern to theoreticians working in a universalistic framework. This balance helps to diminish the possibility that languages might seem more diverse from one another than they are because of the diverse interests of those who work on them.

On the theoretical level, this book is concerned with discovering a conception of Universal Grammar that is valid for both polysynthetic languages and nonpolysynthetic languages. A minor theme, in this regard, is the identification and formu-

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